Every data point is studied with increasing scrutiny. We're all looking for a sign, a clue, a crumb, anything that could impart insight about the future. At the same time, we all know that the economic cycle is no spring chicken, having been running for several years now. Yet to judge by the stock market lately, the bulls have it all figured out: more of the same will prevail.
Amid that backdrop comes the latest weekly number for initial jobless claims. On first glance, the trend looks good. The Labor Department reported this morning that the number of workers filing for jobless benefits fell by 20,000 for the seven days through April 14 from the previous week. That's the largest decline in more than two months. In fact, the size of the fall surprised economists, who had generally been expecting something on the order of a 10,000 decrease.
All told, a total of 321,000 people asked to be put on the unemployment rolls for the week through April 14. The total's fairly middling, as the range of initial claims has generally bumped around within the 300,000-350,000 range for more than a year. But if you're inclined to worry, you'll take note of the larger trend, namely: the year-over-year percentage change in jobless claims has been trending higher for some time now.
As our chart below illustrates, the rolling 52-week change in new filings of jobless is pushing higher. By itself, the figure is just one of countless economic measures that go into the mix of deciphering the big picture. But for those who ask if the economy looks any better than a year ago, here's one metric that fosters doubt about what's coming:
Of course, such gloom contrasts with the capital markets, where the Dow Jones Industrials closed above 13,000 for the first time ever Wednesday. The rise in equities is the all more impressive given that there's nary a sign that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates any time soon, or so Fed futures suggest.
What could derail the trend? For the moment, nothing. "The momentum is so strong," Sal Morreale, a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, told The Washington Post. "I'm amazed." So are we.
The questions of whether the economy is slowing (it is), and by how much (yet to be determined), and what the fallout will be (who knows?) are only dormant, not dead. But such questions can't be posed in mixed company, at least not this week.